The other half of the blues team led by pioneering boogie-woogie pianist Jimmy Yancey, Estelle "Mama" Yancey was a talented vocalist known for her warm sense of humor and great command of the stage. In her childhood, Estelle Harris sang in church choirs and learned guitar. Jimmy Yancey, who had traveled the U.S. and Europe as a vaudeville dancer, married Estelle in 1917, when she was 21. Yancey often sang with her husband at informal gatherings, house-rent parties, and clubs in the 1930s and '40s in Chicago. Because Jimmy Yancey was not that good a blues singer, but was a great boogie-woogie/blues piano player, Estelle recorded frequently with her husband.
Yancey sang with her husband in 1948 at Carnegie Hall, and this performance in turn led to Jimmy Yancey's last recording with Mama, Pure Blues, in 1951 for a fledgling Atlantic Records. Jimmy Yancey died a few months later from a stroke brought on by complications from diabetes, but Estelle continued to perform and record. One of the best examples of her soulful, expressive vocals can be found on an album for Atlantic, Jimmy and Mama Yancey: Chicago Piano, Vol. 1. Mama Yancey's recordings with other pianists include South Side Blues for the Riverside label (1961), some records with Art Hodes for Verve in 1965, and Maybe I'll Cry with Erwin Helfer for the Red Beans label in 1983, recorded at age 87. Yancey died in 1986. ~ Richard Skelly